Greetings again from the darkness. This is Mexico’s official Oscar submission for 2021 Best International Feature Film. Written and directed by Tatiana Huezo (her first narrative feature), the story is adapted from the 2014 best-selling novel by Jennifer Clement. It’s an unusual film that lacks a traditional plot, and instead focuses on the daily lives within a small village in Mexico.
Young girls Ana, Paula, and Maria are good friends. They live in a poverty stricken area, and most of the males work in the quarry/mine or for the cartel, leaving women and children to make do scrounging for food and working in the poppy fields at harvest time. Rita (Mayra Batalla) is Ana’s mother. She’s a proud, hard-working woman who is very protective of her daughter. Why? Well the area is patrolled by the cartel, and neighbors regularly go ‘missing’ – especially young girls. When Ana shows up wearing lipstick, Rita doesn’t find it cute. Instead she serves up a harsh reprimand to the girl too young to understand the risk.
Our view is from Ana’s perspective, and there are two distinct halves. In the first, Ana and her friends are very young (likely between 7 and 9). When we flash forward, the girls are 13 or 14. As a youngster, Ana is played by Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzales, and she cries when her mother chops off her long hair and styles it like a young boy. This is not done for punishment, but rather to make her less desirable to the cartel. Her friend Paula goes through the same ordeal, while Maria’s cleft palate is deemed to serve the same purpose. As a teenager, Ana is played by Marya Membreno, and the haircut no longer hides her femininity, though her friend Maria faces a tough decision when medical assistance becomes available.
Director Huezo and the actors do a superb job in conveying the ever-present aura of danger hovering over the village. Rita digs a grave-like hole as a hiding place for Ana, and their strategy is put to use. In one particularly tense scene in conflict with the cartel, what keeps Rita alive is that she works in the poppy field – so she is viewed as an asset. As if possible starvation or abduction aren’t enough to keep everyone worried, the poppy fields are sprayed with poison in an attempt to control the crops – only the poison gets dumped on the village instead, as the helicopter pilots have been bribed and threatened by the cartel.
This is a haunting film and we connect quickly with Rita and Ana. We feel the relentless pressure of living in an environment where the cloak of danger is always worn and constant fear is a part of daily life. School provides the girls with a glimmer of hope, although it’s fleeting. This is no place for childhood innocence, and the responsibilities of parenting are almost beyond anyone’s ability. Cinematographer Dariela Ludlow perfectly captures the images, the acting is terrific, and director Huezo has delivered a gem.
Available on Netflix beginning November 17, 2021